A note from Madf0x

Bakir's training continued for five more hours without break. Slowly the initiates accumulated more mana, desperately hoping to make enough to meet weekly quotas. If they were lucky, they'd have enough left over to actually practice real magic. Kuzari felt pleased with his own personal progress. He was aiming for a subaffinity, an aspect that was hard to distill directly and often had to be distilled from already purified complementary elemental mana. Shadow was by far the most accessible for what he needed, but it could be ages before he built up enough for a serious test. Shadows also had that edgy brooding bad boy vibe chicks dug.

By the end of the training most of the initiates were on the verge of passing out, Kuzari included. The one named Saban was being carried out on a stretcher. During the last cycle, he lost control of the raw mana in his channels and caused him to spit out a freakish amount of blood from his mouth. The body did not seem to enjoy wild uncontrolled energy. Thankfully none of the others had lost control.

Bakir marched down the line doing a final inspection on everyone's progress. He nodded his head approvingly or shook his head in disappointment. He rarely nodded. The old man reached Kuzari and sent a pulse of energy to check the newest initiate's progress. Bakir's face scrunched up in disgust.

"Is that all initiate? Have you been twiddling your thumbs the whole time?" Bakir asked.

"What do you mean?" Kuzari asked, confused by the question.

"Out of an entire session, that was all you managed to pull in? You would need to double your current progress to make this weeks quota, and that's with the relaxed requirements for new initiates. You have less than a week to catch up and then must meet the normal minimums within a month. " Bakir said. "Failing even once is an excuse for core reassignment."

Kuzari balked at the judgment. He genuinely felt like he pushed himself as much as possible and he had to double his progress just to survive the week? This must be the handicap of starting unaffiliated

"I understand Apprentice, I will do better." Kuzari bowed slightly to his teacher. As much as he didn't like how the old man treated people, he did respect the straightforward no bullshit approach to teaching. Either you followed his instructions successfully or you got carried away on a stretcher in a puddle of your own blood. It was a refreshingly simple dynamic.

Bakir dismissed the initiates and hustled out of the room faster than anyone else. The old man didn't want to waste another second on a pack of initiates. Many of the others split off to do their own thing while some broke off into their own cliques.

As useful as his fellow initiates could have been for information, Kuzari was starving and headed off for more food. Besides, developing his magic was priority over everything else. Failure could mean death and the clock was short. It was a bit strange, he mused as he ate, but the pressure didn't actually bother him all that much. It was no different than when he had crunch time to make payment for Eric's treatments really. Either he buckled down and did what needed to be done or someone would die, except this time it was his own life at stake. No matter, he would just have to succeed then, wouldn't he?

After eating his fill he returned to his room. Once training for the day was finished, students were largely left to their own devices. Quota was the only thing that mattered it seemed. Whatever you did afterward was your own business. Kuzari knew he needed to spend his time more wisely than most.

He sat in the cool shade away from his lone window and was reading a book about channels and meridians. He was looking for ways to maximize his ability to pull in more mana and purify it more efficiently. Most of the mana he gathered was wasted while purifying it into usable shadow and neutral types. Far more wasted than what was necessary.

As he studied he tried something risky. He slowly gathered mana as he read the book. Trying to pull in mana while fully focused was already difficult enough, but doing so while purposely distracted and tired was dangerous. Still, Kuzari could afford to waste time. He needed to read and learn but he needed to spend every waking second he could to build his stockpile and increase his affinity towards shadows. The amount he could pull was a trickle compared to the amount of when he fully focused, but it was just practice at the moment. He would have far more success when night fell and the shadow affinity would be at its most plentiful.

The book was helpful even though it was boring. It described how the way a person pulled from their meridians mattered, how tons of energy was wasted by having the raw mana slam against the channels instead of guiding it smoothly to the core, while also describing methods whereby some people purposely applied unnecessary pressure to stretch and grow the channels like a muscle. As neat as that was, he still struggled to open his meridians all the way and that would limit him far more than anything else. He studied till dark, practicing his control over the thin stream of raw mana as he absorbed it into his body.

He set the book down and began to focus wholly on absorbing mana and extracting shadow mana. He was shocked by how easier it was to isolate the shadow affinity this time and just how much more of it there was when he was immersed in darkness. While the overall amount of mana he obtained was still minuscule, he managed to develop double twice his stockpile of shadow in just one cycle. It made the time and effort he spent during the day almost a total waste, the efficiency was just terrible. While intellectually he was aware that changes in the environment were a significant factor for gathering elemental mana, he was still shocked at how extreme the difference could be. He decided that during the day sessions he would be better off skilling the affinity section altogether and just focus purely on converting everything he gathered into neutral. Then at night while alone he could practice developing his affinity.

And so for the rest of the week Kuzari did just that. He afforded no time for socializing or spent any time exploring the city. Besides, with other Contractors out it would be suicide to go out on his own. It was just begging to be ambushed by somebody looking for some bonus point from their patron. Instead, he focused time spent not gathering mana on studying better ways to gather mana and improve affinity. Advice was given on varying locations for ideal gathering of various affinities, of magical elixirs that changed the body to accommodate an affinity better, and dangerous ritualistic magic that didn't actually include instructions. He dared not to crack open a book on actual spellcasting. He knew the moment he did he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to follow along and cast some spells just for the sake of it. That was mana he simply couldn't afford to waste. He did manage to get introduced to the library and immediately stocked up on every relevant tome he could find on gathering Mana and developing affinities. He was disappointed that while there were a few books dedicated to fire and air affinities he couldn't find one on shadows.

At the end of the week, his core felt a quarter full of mana, split almost perfectly between shadow and neutral mana. He was nervous as tribute loomed. Nobody had actually told him what the quota amount was. Bakir hadn't scolded him since the first day but still shook his head disapprovingly. Kuzari was surprised that when the time came it was not one of the servants that came to get him but Adara. He hadn't seen her since she first showed him his room.

She arched an eyebrow when he opened the door. She wasn't sure what to make by his odd furniture choices and having the floor littered with paper and books. Adara seemed prepared to make a comment but thought better of it.

"It's time for tribute, follow me." She said simply instead.

Kuzari obeyed and soon found himself in a cluster of other initiates gathered by Adara. The group then proceeded up multiple flights of stairs, eventually mixing with other groups of initiates led by other scarfed apprentices. The solemn air grew heavy as the collective group ascended more and more flights of stairs. More than a few members of the group were panting heavily as the reached near the top. It was dark already and some members had already pulled out torches for visibility.

Eventually, they did reach the top of the spire itself. It opened out to a grand atrium. Colored glass covered the room, replacing any idea of walls or a ceiling. The glass was fashioned into murals reminiscent of Catholic cathedrals on Earth. They depicted monsters being slain by brave heroes, and Kings bowing to radiant individuals. In the far back of the room, the largest mural of all dominated the when atrium. A glass portrait of Magni himself in all his glory. Now....that's an ego.

The entire group stood in formation and stood with an uneasy tension. Kuzari briefly scanned the room and estimated several hundred initiates in total with several dozen apprentices. He was still baffled at the size of the spire itself to support this number of people at its apex. It was easy to forget about it when you stuck to a small subsection twenty-four seven.

Everyone else's focus was on the center of the room. There Magni himself stood behind a simple unadorned stone table with metal chains. Kuzari felt apprehensive about the tribute process. Ralin's memories had not been pleasant but experiencing it personally would be a different story.

"Greetings my children!" Magni's voice boomed over the silent crowd, his voice making Bakir seem like a whisper in comparison.

"Once again it is time for tribute to your master! As I call out your name, stand forth and lie in the table. I will handle the rest. I will extract the quota. It is unpleasant, yes, but if you have enough you shall survive if not your core goes to someone more deserving. Simple no?" Magni laughed deeply.

Kuzari wondered if this was a little speech he did every week. He could imagine it getting old quickly.

"Fitz". Magni boomed without further ceremony. A small boy broke from the crowd and walked up to the table with fear visible on his face. Huh, that's the kid from my group Kuzari realized as he recognized the young child.

The kid sat on the table and laid down. Magni chained the child down and began his work. It was a brutally simple procedure really, a method used since ancient times by master's to draw power from their own students. A barbaric method by the standards of supposedly more 'civilized' nations in the world, but out here in the city of glass Anastazia? This was the norm.

Magni rested his hand on the boy's chest and closed his eyes. Kuzari did not have the magical means of perception that many of the apprentices seemed to have developed and all he could see was the child suddenly writhing in agony. The boys scream rang in the air and not a soul moved to do anything about it. The moment only lasted mere seconds, but the child continued crying long after Magni undid the chains. An apprentice carried the crying child away from the rest of the group, Fitz clearly not having the strength to walk any further on his own.

Magni called out the next name and the cycle continued. It was the same thing for everyone. Screams filled the entire night as the hard-earned mana collected from dozens of people was drained into the Ifrit. Most people were able to weakly stumble from the table and file into the group of finished students, but more than a few of the young and old that never made it to apprentice had to be carried away. When an apprentice was called they managed to walk away from the table like the ordeal had been nothing at all. Yet everybody screamed. Fortunately, there had been no casualties yet.

"Kuzari" Magni boomed.

Kuzari gulped, shoving his anxiety down and tried to ignore the sickening feeling in his stomach as he approached the table. He heard a few confused gasps from initiates behind him. Not everyone had heard the news yet and assumed he was just Ralin up till now. Must have had no friends if they knew him but nobody checked up on me.

Kuzari laid down on the table and felt Magni lock the chains around his body. He had figured from witnessing those earlier that the chains were likely more for his own protection than anything else. Magni placed his red hand over Kuzari's chest. He had no time to brace himself before it happened.

He felt spikes of energy lance into his meridians all at once. He screamed from the pain, his entire body and soul trying to warn him that something was wrong, that he was being invaded. He reflexively tried to push out the foreign energy with his mind but his efforts were futile. The energy crawled down his channels until they found his core. Like the tentacles of some vile creature, they wormed their way inside and he could feel it in his core. They began to drink greedily from his pool of mana. Hours and hours of hard work washed away in an instance until he felt dry until he felt robbed of his self and dignity. He expected the pain, he just didn't expect to feel....less.

The matter only took a few seconds but felt like an eternity. The trendils of energy receded from his channels and meridians and Kuzari found himself panting and his heart beating hard as Magni undid the chains. Kuzari slowly began to sit up, feeling exhausted and raw. He was just happy it was over and he managed to pass, though judging from how utterly empty his core was he had managed just barely. He moved to stand up and almost collapsed under his own weight.

He felt someone catch him and was dimly aware of Adara wrapping his arm behind her head. He walked along with her support until he was able to stand on his own in the finished crowd. Everyone else looked as drained as he felt, and he had a newfound appreciation for these people that had just experienced the same thing he did. He seethed from the experience but knee he had to accept it. He simply wasn't strong enough to resist Magni. Kuzari watched silently, eyes barely open, as the ceremony continued.

Eventually, everyone was finished. Magni ended with a casual comment that everyone made quota this week and should feel proud of themselves for the accomplishment. Without any more fanfare, the group was led down by the haggard apprentices. Nearly everybody headed to bed immediately, a few went off to cope in their own ways from the harrowing event.

Kuzari did not study that night. He did not cycle fresh mana into his drained core. He did not plan or scheme for crafty ways to get stronger. That could all wait till tomorrow. He simply curled into a ball on the floor and slept.

That night his dreams were filled by the screams of tributes.

A note from Madf0x

Hope you enjoy the chapter!


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